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SINS by Michael Tuccinardi

To old hands in the tropical fish world, Brazils Rio Negro is a mystical river that conjures up the heart
and soul of the early aquarium livestock trade. True to its name, the river is a deep black, colored by the
decaying vegetation of the South American rainforest, and it is thought that some species of fish in the
Rio Negro may have evolved their electrifying colors in order to be more visible to shoalmates and
potential breeding partners in the dark water. In fact, one of the fishes found here was so
startlingly iridescent that it enchanted millions of home fishkeepers around the
world and fostered an entire Amazonian fish industry. The Cardinal
Tetra was a boon to collectors and exporters, but it also raised
questions about the effects of the aquarium trade on
both the ecology and the people of the Rio Negro.
The ornamental fishery in the Rio Negro is
one of the most studied on the planet and dates
back to the early days of the modern aquarium
hobby, beginning in the 1950s, when the advent
of reliable air cargo expanded the burgeoning trade
to distant port cities. The city of Manaus, located at the
junction of the Rio Negro and the upper Amazon (known locally
as Solimes), became a major exporter of South American ornamentals,
including the recently described and immensely sought-after Cardinal Tetra. Huge numbers of this
fish were exported in the 1960s and 70s, jumpstarting a unique system of community-based fisheries
dedicated to collecting these and other aquarium favorites like Rummynose Tetras, Bleeding Heart
Tetras, and Marble Hatchets.
As global demand for aquarium fishes grew, so, too, did the scope of the fishery in this region and

its relative importance. By the early 1990s a large proportion of people in the area were making their
living from the fishery; one study estimated that 60 percent of cash incomes in the municipality of
Barcelos were derived from the ornamental fish trade.

Despite the huge numbers of fishes (Cardinals in particular) being exported from Manaus, the trade
remained largely sustainable for a few important reasons. First, fish collection is limited by the seasonal
flood pattern of the Amazonit is only feasible during the dry season, when the floodwaters have receded
substantially. This aligns with the reproductive strategies of many popular aquarium fish species, which
typically spawn at the height of the floods. Huge numbers of fry are released into the flooded forests
where food is plentiful, but as the waters recede many (if not most) of these juvenile fishes do not
make it back into the main river channels to reproduce. The majority of the fishes are destined to either
dry out or become prey as their habitat disappears. This particular reproductive strategy is known as
r-selected and has led most researchers to conclude that the Rio Negro aquarium fishery is an almost
inexhaustible resource.
Another aspect of this fishery that helps prevent over-collection is that the fishing grounds are owned
by communities. This ensures sustainable use of the resource and creates a powerful motive for fishermen
and -women to preserve the overall health of the environment. Each fisher has a
clearly defined fishing area (usually a series of igaraps, or blackwater swamps)
and cant just move further upstream if fishes become scarce. This is a powerful
disincentive to over-fishing and helps protect the fishing grounds themselves, and
it is one of the reasons the Rio Negro fishery is considered not merely sustainable,
but environmentally beneficial.

The iconic Cardinal Tetra,

Paracheirodon axelrodi, a flashy little
fish of significant economic importance
to rural fishing villages and the

aquarium trade worldwide.

A bag of Rio Negro Cardinal Tetras
arrives at a Florida-based importer.

r-Selected & K-Selected Species

Every species employs a reproductive strategy to ensure that it which is outside of their natural range (see
leaves offspring behind to carry on. Biologists place each species Ingo Seidels article in the Jan/Feb issue of
somewhere on a continuum with r strategists (r-selected species) AMAZONAS, page 52.) For some of us, it is
at one end and K strategists (K-selected species) at the other. The dismaying to see confirmation in print that
designations come from mathematical equations that predict and Colombia has begun exporting Cardinalsthe
model population growth: r represents the population growth rate, one fish on which the Rio Negro fishery has
and K represents the carrying capacity, or the number of individu- traditionally been basedand thus perhaps
als of a species that the resources in its habitat can support. undermining the work of Project Piaba and
r-selected species have numerous offspring with the assump- the Brazilian collectors.
tion that at least some will survive. These species mature quickly,
do not live long, breed at a young age, have high mortality rates, Fishery at a crossroads
and do not invest energy in caring for their offspring. The young Today the ornamental trade in the Rio Negro
are precocial: they can care for themselves without the parents. stands at a major crossroads. When people
Examples of r-selected species include bacteria, insects, and many started commercially breeding Cardinal Tetras
schooling and shoaling fishes. in the late 1990s, many major importers
At the other end of the spectrum are humans, the most in- and distributors opted to buy these hardier
tensely K-selected species. K strategists have long gestation periods cultured fish, despite their higher price. As
and produce few young at one time. The offspring are altricalor breeding techniques improved, the price fell
helpless and dependent upon parents for survival and instruction. low enough to make them competitive with
The parents invest a great deal of time in caring for and teach- wild fish, and within a few years exports of
ing the offspring so that they will live long and reproduce. Some Cardinals from Manaus plummeted. The
examples are whales, apes, and elephants. ramifications for those who had tradition-
ally depended on their collection have been
serious. Supply-chain issues continue to
plague the fishery, and extended time in
For the past two years I have served on the advisory transit under less-than-ideal conditions has given fishes
board for Project Piaba ( The organiza- from the region a not entirely undeserved reputation for
tions goal is to foster an environmentally and socially being difficult and delicate. While newly popular species
beneficial ornamental fish trade in Brazil, using the col- like L-number plecos, rare Corydoras, and characins like
lection and export of wild fishes to help protect and pre- Poecilocharax weitzmani have helped keep the fishery
serve the rainforest environment and the livelihoods of intact, without the regular cash flow from staples like the
people who live here. One of the more challenging tasks Cardinal Tetra, aquarium fish collectors are increasingly
facing Project Piaba has been to convince retailers and forced to seek out other sources of income.
hobbyists that in some cases, buying a wild-caught fish is
a more sustainable and responsible option than choosing Beyond sustainability?


the more readily available aquacultured offerings. The substantial body of research on this fishery continues
To complicate the situation, there are recent re- to indicate that it is more than simply sustainableit
ports of Cardinal Tetras being exported from Colombia, provides an exceptional level of environmental protection

A fisherwoman scans the
waters of a Rio Negro
igarape for piabas, or
aquarium fish.


for a region desperately in need of it. This is a rare, the people who inhabit ityet for the reasons outlined
clearcut case where the aquarium trade is driving positive above, the fishery and its benefits are at real risk of be-
outcomes for both a critically important ecosystem and ing lost forever. This poses both a great problem and a
great opportunity for aquarists: Given
our knowledge of this situation, are we
willing to ensure that this fisherya
perfect example of the aquarium trade
as a force for goodwill not disappear?
Are we willing to take the time and effort
to seek out Rio Negro fishes? By doing
so we support the fishery and signal
to retailers and importers that there is
demand for these sustainably sourced

We are faced with a dizzying array of
choices when it comes to stocking our
home tanksconsiderations like price,

Brazilian Cardinal Tetras

on display at New England Aquarium fish collecting is a livelihood and
Aquarium in Boston, MA. skilled trade in the Rio Negro-fishermen
like this one represent the second or third
generation to rely on this trade.


availability, and convenience all influence our decisions.
Very rarely is the average consumer privy to information
regarding the origin of a fish. But collectively, hobbyists do
have the power to influence what fishes are available in the
trade and where they come from.

Enter the Colombian Cardinal

In order to keep the Rio Negro fishery alive and thriving, a
necessary first step is to reignite consumer interest in wild
Cardinalsso the availability of cheap, decent quality tetras
from Colombia has come as something of a blow. But it
is not entirely unexpected or unprecedentedColombia
has been exporting Cardinal Tetras for some time. While
the more widely available fish mentioned in Ingo Seidels
article are almost certainly the result of the far interior of
the country opening for collection, the unfortunate truth is
that most of the Cardinals exported from Colombia before
this were very
likely Brazilian
in origin, having
come across the
porous borders
along the state of
Amazonas. The Rio Negro aquarium fishery
The fishes is actively helping to preserve
habitat from deforestation.
being smuggled
out of Brazil
in recent years
have hardly been
limited to a few
boxes of Cardinal Tetras. Since IBAMA implemented its clean list policy
for aquarium fishesbanning a number of popular and valuable aquarium
species from exportit is not uncommon to find Colombian exporters
offering Brazilian endemics. Most importers honestly dont know if their L-
number plecos really come from Brazil or whether a lucky Colombian collec-
tor happened across some that swam upstream, but there have been a few
very blatant cases. I have seen wild L-046 Zebra Plecos, LDA105 Typhoon
Plecos, and others that dont occur anywhere near the Colombian Amazon
on the availability lists of major exporters therewhich cant help but raise
a few questions for those in the know. It is said that other expensive fishes,
like Black Arowana (Osteoglossum ferreiraeespecially small specimens) and
Tigrinus Cats (M. tigrinum), are often smuggled across the borders as well.

Of conflict, catfishes, and cocaine

While the smuggling of endemic biodiversity from a country that bans their
export to another with more lax regulations is hardly a novel problem, it is
one with big implications for the aquarium fish tradeespecially in this case,
because the smuggling of tropical fishes into Colombia is not a one-sided
trade. It is often a byproduct of the rampant drug smuggling supplying many
of Brazils urban centers with cocaine across those same remote borders. I
was first made aware of the scope of this problem last year while I was visit-
ing exporters in Manaus. They complained that they are no longer allowed
to export the very high-priced fishes that somehow keep finding their way to

This illegal trade is primarily conducted by a small number of indepen-
dent fishermen along the Colombia/Peru border with ties to the drug trade,

but there may be some larger players involved. One inclined to voice support for that wild fishery myselfbut
exporter I spoke with grumbled about a local competitor unlike grey market fishes, the debate about Colom-
who allegedly sent more boxes of fishes over the border bian versus Brazilian Cardinals is not a good choice/
into Colombia than he shipped out of Manaus airport, bad choice scenario. I would argue, however, that given
further explaining that the border town of Tabatinga has what we know about the clear positive outcomes of the
become a hub for this illicit exchange. Small planes and Rio Negro fishery, the responsible choice for importers,
boats laden with cocaine from Colombia offload their
cargo there or in Manaus, where it often fuels grow-
ing gang-related violence. Aquarium fishes often fill
the cargo holds of these vessels on their return journey
to Colombia, where they join large numbers of legally
collected Colombian fishes bound for export to the US,
the EU, Japan, or elsewhere. This grey market does more
than just give economic incentive to illegal collectors and
narcotics smugglersit diminishes the demand for legally
and sustainably collected fishes from Brazil and casts the
entire ornamental trade in a deeply unfavorable light.
The only solution is to remove the demand, and I wonder
whether we aquarists are all too happy to overlook ille-
gally sourced fishes, so long as these sought-after rarities
keep coming to market.
The Rio Orinoco Cardinals now making their way
out of Colombia probably arent related to the smuggling
activities along the Colombia/Brazil border. In fact, they
may very well be the products of community-based fish-
eries very similar to those that exist along the Rio Negro.
My purpose in examining the grey market currently oper-
ating through Colombia is not to paint the Cardinal Tet-

ras from that country in a negative light, but to highlight

some of the real challenges now facing law-abiding fish
collectors and exporters in the Rio Negro region. I am

The uncertain future of the Rio Negro fish-
ery, once vaunted as a model of environmen-
tal and socioeconomic sustainability, has
raised alarms in academia, the public aquari-
Barcelos, a city and municipality on the Rio Negro where 60 um world, and the ornamental trade alike. If
percent of incomes are derived from the aquarium trade. the Rio Negro fishery is allowed to collapse,
the consequences will extend far beyond the
aquarium hobby and the tens of thousands
of people who rely at least partially on this
trade. Deprived of their traditional source of
income, many fishermen and -women in the
region would have little choice but to turn
to much more destructive forms of subsis-
tencelike the slash-and-burn agriculture,
illegal logging, and gold mining that have
already devastated wide swaths of the Ama-
zonian rainforest.
Some readers may be familiar with
Project Piaba, as it has been around in
various forms since the early 1990s. It was
formed when researchers (including current
executive director Scott Dowd) studying the
trade in aquarium fishes in the Rio Negro
region began to understand the positive
impact the fisher was having. In the early
retailers, and aquarists is to seek out these fish whenever years, the project mainly focused on research, organizing
feasible. a number of studies and expeditions in the Rio Negro
drainage. With the trade now facing an uncertain future,
Project Piabas role Project Piaba has turned from research to advocacy. In its
With all thats going on in the Rio Negro, you may be current iteration, the project is a group dedicated to pre-
wondering what Project Piabas role isand rightly so. serving and advocating for the environmentally beneficial
aquarium fishery based in Brazils Rio Negro. The board is
composed of experts from a number of fields, including
public aquarists, fisheries biologists, representatives of the
trade, and others.
The challenges we face in trying to preserve this
important fishery are many: competition from overseas
(and now Colombian exports), regulations, and an often
problematic supply chain. One of the biggest hurdles is
trying to educate consumers about the benefits of wild
Rio Negro fishes and simultaneously ensure that hobby-
ists have access to a steady supply of healthy, high-quality
fishes. This is no small task, but after years of extensive
groundwork we are beginning to achieve some of these
goals. I very much hope that AMAZONAS readers will be
treated to a full update on these successes in the not-too-
distant future.
Piabas work in the region is starting to have positive
effects, including concrete improvements to handling
practices throughout the supply chain. Here in the US,
the project is working to form partnerships with zoos and
public aquariums to showcase the environmental protec-
tionism that can result from the aquarium tradeeducat-

ing potential aquarium owners on sustainable sourcing.

Sorting a days catch in the tiny My own former employer, Segrest Farms, has invested
fishing village of Daracua. a substantial amount of money in building dedicated

holding systems for blackwater fishes like those from the nothing else, it underscores the importance of learning
Rio Negro in order to help make these fishes more widely the stories behind the tropical fishes that are swimming
available on the US market. With a vibrant and talented in our home aquariums. I recognize that trying to make
group making up the current board of advisors, there responsible fish-buying decisions can be overwhelming
is reason to be optimisticbut the appearance of mass- even after years in the industry, I still find myself torn on
market Colombian Cardinals makes our collective task some sourcing issues. But at least in this one case, there
that much more difficult. seems to be a clear best choice. By seeking out and buying
Rio Negro fishes, you can be certain that you are sup-
Why it matters porting the best of our hobby and industry. Although the
Because I think a lot of aquarists are both well inten- aquarium hobby is fundamentally about nothing more
tioned and deeply concerned with the conservation issues enlightened or profound than keeping glass boxes full of
facing the source countries of the fishes that populate pretty fishes, there is a human face, often halfway across
our tanks, this convoluted tale of conservation, co- the world, responsible for our having those fishes. Having
caine, and Colombian Cardinals is an important one. If traveled a fair bit and seen the faces of many of the
people who venture out into wild places
to bring us those fishes, I cant help but
advocate for them when the opportunity
We are living in a tumultuous but
very interesting time for the aquarium
hobby. Whether it will survive to be
enjoyed by our children and grandchil-
dren remains to be seen. If, years from
now, we can point to a vibrant aquarium
fishery in the Rio Negro that was saved
from collapse by a coalition of sustainably
minded consumers, industry members,
and researchers, it will be a decisive victo-

It all ry for all aquaristsand perhaps one that

can be replicated in other areas around

starts wIth the world that even now are succumb-

ing to unconstrained development. The
aquarium hobby is just a tiny cross-sec-
tion of the complex world we live in, but
No matter what life stage your fish is iN, we have the perfect food for you.
the ornamental fish industry it supports
is a truly global one that has the potential
to be a major force for good in places like
the Brazilian Amazon.

Michael J. Tuccinardi
AMAZONAS e-mail: phone: (800) 624-7322


White Lists & Blackwaters

Within the farflung ranks of interna-
tional aquarium fish importers, there
is no shortage of opinion about the
Cardinal Tetra tradepast, present, and
future. AMAZONAS Magazines senior
editor and translator Stephan Tanner,
Ph.D., and contributor Mike Tuccinardi
had their own friendly debate. Tanner
(ST) is a breeder who has worked in
aquarium retail in Europe. Tuccinardi
(MT), who has also been in aquarium
retail and worked for one of the largest
fish importers in the U.S., is working
with Project Piaba to encourage sustain-
able trade in Rio Negro fishes. The stunning Tucano Tetra (Tucanoichthys tucano)
from the upper Rio Negro. New species like this one

are helping to keep the fishery viable.

ST: I think its important to look at the
reasons why most of Europe switched
to Colombian Cardinals: 1) Rio Negro
fishes became tough to import because
many other popular trade fishes werent on Brazils White certain fishes, all the others might become unexportable
List (species legal to collect and export) after 2006. because it is not worthwhile to bring in 30-40 boxes of
However, as you are well aware, reasonable freight fishes that are all more or less the same. This is an impor-
costs depend largely on a mix of bread-and-butter and tant reason why Brazilian Cardinals became second-class
oddball species. Brazil effectively destroyed its aquarium citizens. It was the same with cichlids from the lower
fish collecting and export industry overnight with the Amazon: once the L-number catfishes and stingrays were
2006 IBAMA White List. Of course there had already off the list, Altamira and many other places effectively
been another White List in effect well before 2006 that were toast.
was much shorter, but it was never enforced. (IBAMA is
the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable MT: Rio Negro fishes are difficult to importbut I dis-
Natural Resources.) agree that IBAMA has killed the industry there. The first
From one day to the next, they clamped down and lists were definitely restrictive, but as it now stands the
drove the industry into the ground. If you cannot collect clean list allows export of almost all commercially im-
portant species in the Rio Negro. The export market out
of Belem was hit much harder because they rely so much
on L-number plecos. The Rio Negro fishery has always
Stephan M. Tanner
been based on Cardinals, Bleeding Hearts, hatchets, and
Corydoras for 80 percent of its exports by volumenone
of which were restricted by IBAMA.
A big part of the problem was that importers were
being scared away from Brazil by all these difficult and
changing restrictions around the same time that Colom-
bia was getting very competitive. Once most of the same
staple species Manaus (Brazil) was offering could be
sourced through Colombia, no importer needed to bring
in fishes from the Rio Negro. It became a non-essential
offering, the kind of shipment most importers would
bring in once or twice yearly instead of once or twice

monthly. That exponential drop in volume hit hard, and

one of the biggest exporters there closed down shortly
afterward, partly for these reasons.

ST: 2) Quality: the Colombians have learned very fast, ST: 4) Brazil got itself a bad reputation (justified or not,
and now export topnotch fishes with good packing. it makes no difference) and it will take years to recover
Brazilian fishes were always very variable in quality, par- from that. I do agree, however, that sustainable collecting
ticular toward March and April at the end of the season. is the only way forward, as it is for all other countries.
They would ship large, hollow-bellied fishes that cost a lot
and were very tough to keep alive (I saw that working in MT: I would say that Colombian Cardinals are fairly new
the trade in the early nineties in Switzerland). on the U.S. marketaside from some trans-shipping,
the vast majority of the Cardinals on the market over
MT: So true. The quality of fishes from the region was the last 1015 years have been either aquacultured (U.S.,
never greatand very few across the chain of custody had Malaysia, or more recently Vietnam and Indonesia) or
any interest in changing that. So as Colombian export- importd from Rio Negro. They still have not achieved
ers improved their handling and packing, the Rio Negro anywhere near the market penetration here that they have
fishes starting looking really bad in comparison. Many in Europe. Some importers in Miami still regularly bring
of the exporters I visited there are still doing things the in Cardinals from Manaus, while most others are relying
same way they were done 20 years ago, and the middle- on cultured fish. I can definitely see all the reasons why
men in Barcelos are even worse. However, there are a few Colombian Cardinals became the go-to choice for most
new exporters who have shown promise. The company importers. Its the same reason that almost all the Bleed-
I worked for brought in several shipments last year with ing Heart Tetras and hatchets imported for the trade now
very low mortality and few health-related issues. One of come from Colombia as well. But I want to try to make the
Project Piabas biggest short-term goals is to help train case for responsible sourcingI realize most businesses
fishers, middlemen, and exporters in appropri-
ate handling practices to improve quality and
keep them competitive. Im cautiously opti-
mistic this might help level the playing field.

ST: 3) Freight from Bogota (Colombia) is

much cheaper than freight from Manaus
(Brazil). There are many direct flights from
Bogota to Miami, Frankfurt, Amsterdam,
London, Toronto, etc., but essentially none
from Manaus, increasing cost and massively
elevating the risk of transport.
One-stop shopping applies to tropical
fishes as much as to anything else. I have
seen importers in Germany bring in fishes
from Belem and Manaus together to simpli- A large L095 pleco awaiting
fy logistics, but with Belem gone, Manaus export in Manaus. Plentiful in the
wild, these fish are relatively rare in
became uninteresting too. So while its true
the hobby due to the challenges of
that IBAMA did not directly affect Cardinals, importing fishes from the region.
Rummy Noses, hatchets, and Corys, the logis-
tical breakdown after the loss of Belem meant
the rules indirectly affected the few Manaus
exporters that were/are left. arent going to shift away from the cheaper and more
convenient option, but raising consumer awareness and
MT: This is very true. The flight availability is a real pushing hobbyists to seek out Rio Negro fishes when pos-
problem even in the U.S., where you essentially need to sible might help keep the fishery there viable. There arent
trans-ship through Miami if you want to bring in fishes a lot of cases where the fish industry has scientists point-
from Manaus. I have heard that airlines are beginning ing out its positive environmental impacts, so it would
to increase their flights out of Manaus due to increased behoove the entire industry to at least make more of an
demand, which is encouraging, but at the moment not effort to support it when possible. The days of huge-vol-
much has changed. The cost differential is substantial as ume shipments from Manaus are almost certainly over,
wellwith the declining demand, the exporter commu- but between fishes that can honestly be marketed as
nity in Manaus is too fragmented to collectively negoti- sustainably sourced and some of the exciting new fishes


ate for better rates from the airlines (as is often done in coming out of the Sao Gabriel fishery (have you seen
other major exporting countries). I am not sure that this those Tucano Tetras yet? Gorgeous!), I think there is still
can be remedied, which is unfortunate. hope for Brazils aquarium fishing communities.